Autonauts begins much like any other sandbox game, as your dinky little explorer lands on an empty planet, its resources ripe for the taking. You start with the basics of making an axe to chop down some trees and use the wood to build a crafting bench. So far, so standard.
But you won’t be chopping down trees for long: the whole point of Autonauts is to get robots to do the work for you. Much like early automatons, the first one you’ll build is made from wood with clockwork mechanisms. Once it’s operational then, with the blow of a Pikminesque whistle, the bot is at your command.
Looking inside the bot’s head, you press record and begin programming its functions. You can go in and edit the script direct, but the key method of teaching a bot is to do it yourself first. So you’ll chop down a tree, select an area size where other trees are, and then let the bot go off and do its thing.
You might find yourself having to tweak its script occasionally, such as expanding the search area or making sure it’s got a tool to do the job (though bots also have limited memory) but you’ve basically got the beginnings of an automaton army.
Jumping into a save with a few hours more on the clock gives a better idea of how gameplay evolves. Instead of slowly mining the environment for resources and crafting things one at a time by yourself, you’re gradually building up bot numbers and expanding the size of your labour force: hell, you can even designate bots to make more bots.
Technically you can do all these things yourself manually, but why would you? The point is to set up a nice self-running system in one area, which then lets you focus on another challenge: so after lumbering, you start automating farming, cooking, and so forth.
All of this is in service to the colonists, who you’re trying to keep happy as you lead them on a journey of transcendence, working your way up a sort of bastardised version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starting with food. There’s a loop here too as, the happier the colonists are, the more 'love' they'll generate, which in a very video game fashion manifests as a resource for mining and the machine that allows you to research new technology.
In something of a nod to the humans in Wall-E your colonists also grow in size, literally fattening up as their consumption and needs expand. But their needs also go hand-in-hand with the technology you learn. For instance, berries are too basic as sustenance later on, but you’ll have learned fire technology by then and how to craft cooking pots, while your various food bots are growing spicy berries or combining them with other ingredients to make richer foods.
Fast-forward some hours further and you’ll find yourself needing to look after even fatter colonists with new needs: clothing, shelter, even leisure activities. But then the happier you’re making them, the more love they’re producing, and the more technology you're able to harness to fulfil those needs.
These various glimpses of moments along Autonaut's progression arc shows a game of impressively vast and exponential scope, especially considering it’s the work of just two people. One is games industry veteran Gary Penn, perhaps best known for his work at DMA Design, and notably the director of the first Grand Theft Auto. With that in mind, you’d feel inclined to take a glance at the cute colourful aesthetics and wonder if there’s something darker going on underneath.
Penn reckons there’s probably an unconscious influence though, as the team had been working with community feedback via Itch and Discord, there was also a decision to move back from elements like survival, death, or combat.
“We did try death, but no one liked death,” Penn says: so while colonists might starve, they’ll never die of starvation. To be fair, Penn then goes on to mention trying to implement a furnace system (to dispose of corpses) which does sound a bit too grim. “The game is deliberately letting you play at your own pace. There's nothing nasty in there, no killing animals or fighting. It's kind of intentional. It's something nice for a change.”
Of course, when one of the most influential and controversial games series on your CV is the original Grand Theft Auto, it’s hard not to have it overshadowing your work or to make comparisons with the clearly more chilled and family-friendly fare Penn is making now. Is that simply just down to age?
“You're not wrong,” Penn says. “I've had kids since then as well. It's one of the reasons I left Rockstar in the first place - once you have a family, it's a hard work life. But yes, when you have kids, you start saying I've had enough of violence.”
That’s not to say that Autonauts is a kids’ game, though its chunky and cutesy visuals certainly suggest so. The whole programming aspect, for example, shares similarities with Scratch, so you can see the potential for classrooms. “We didn't set out to make an educational game, but it turns out to be an effective way of teaching basic systems,” says Penn. “So we're quite happy to embrace it, even though it’s not specifically ‘edutainment.’”
After two years in development, the game is close to release with Curve Digital as publisher, though version 1.0 is really just that, with plenty more post-release content planned. For starters, as interesting as chopping trees, farming crops and building windmills can get, Autonauts aspires to show technological evolution: so what I’ve seen is just the agricultural phase. The next phase to follow would be steam with the idea eventually being to go all the way to modern technology and the future.
It will be interesting to see how that plan develops, as Penn tells me he finds the older tech the more interesting. “It involves more of a workforce. So in theory, when you get to more contemporary times and even beyond, there’s going to be fewer things to automate as technology is kind of taken care of for you.”
Autonauts looks and sounds like a delightful way to while away a few hours: a pleasant sandbox sim that shows a (generally) more positive side to automation. After all, who doesn't want to give out a few instructions, sit back, and watch an army of robots carry out their will? Fetch me a piña colada Arnie: I've got a good feeling about this one.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.